Monday, 25 June 2012

The Myth Of Benefits

It was not long after I had started working in offices, even for comparatively small companies, that I came across what I think of as the 'Holy Grail Syndrome'. There may be some official term for it, but that is the one I use. Basically it is a belief that is widespread across a company and held very strongly that some handbook or piece of software exists that contains regulations, guidance or some facility that you need to solve some common problem in the company. I have held down over 16 jobs in the past 25 years and have encountered this view in almost every single one. Of course, if you ask where this handbook is or where you can download or install the software from, no-one knows, but they would swear that someone knows, you just have to ask. The trouble is, once you have asked around and found that no such thing exists and so the problem you have encountered cannot be solved by this non-existent thing, then you encounter hostility. The response is that you must be useless or stupid not to have been able to locate the item or have simply not spoken to the right people. The faith in the item exceeds faith in your abilities and so your reputation suffers. In the end you have to simply put up with the problem the way everyone else has done up until then or look a complete idiot and/or lazy. I thought encountering this attitude once or twice was just coincidence but have now found it so prevalent that it seems inherent in a range of British workplaces. I wonder if readers from elsewhere have found it in their country too or if it is confined to the particular attitudes of the UK.

Now I am unemployed once more and on the slippery slope yet again to having my house repossessed I have encountered a very similar situation in regard to benefits paid by the government. I have had very good moral and financial support from my family as has the woman who lives in my house and shares the mortgage with me. Her business is in meltdown given the economic climate, another complicating factor I will come to in a minute. Anyway, the hardest thing to deal with after the lack of money, having no job and about to lose our house, is how repeatedly friends and family keep saying 'I cannot understand why you cannot get benefits to pay for this stuff' and then followed up with 'have you asked?' and then 'you can't have asked properly/in the right way'. Then you get 'in the papers you read about these people get hundreds/thousands of pounds and you are more deserving than them, why can't you get this money?'. So it goes on. We are made to appear as if we are lazy or clueless because we cannot get the funds that everyone knows that other people are getting.

I have worked in a job centre and I know how hard it is to sign on to get benefits and how rigorous the checks are on people. As someone who has been unemployed more than he has been in work in the past three years, I have also seen it from the consumers' side too. I have noted before, how if there are doubts about the way your job ended, even if you were made redundant, this can delay or eliminate your ability to even claim the basic Jobseekers' Allowance: This has happened this time round. First my claim was delayed by over five weeks while they Department for Work and Pensions tried to work out why the woman in my house could be working 16-20 hours and ending the week with less money than she started. These days they assume everyone gets paid minimum wage for every hour they work. However, this does not apply if you run your own business. As prices have been slashed she is now in a situation where competitors are selling at below the price she paid for her stock, so when she sells it, it is at a loss. She has been told she cannot wind up the business because that would be making herself deliberately unemployed which would bar her and me from benefits and yet she is not losing enough to be declared bankrupt. Every week I have to fill in an inappropriate form for her saying how many hours she has worked and when she will be paid by her 'employer' and how much tax she has paid, assuming she is on PAYE (Pay As You Earn) rather than Self-Assessed Tax. The net pay these days is generally a negative number. There is no form available if you have someone who is self-employed in the house, but you still have to show how their 'income' impacts on the household budget, week-after-week. Of course, there is no government pay to plug a loss.

After the situation of the woman in my house was sorted out I received backdated benefit of £70 (€88.20; US$108.50) which does not cover the food and utility bills but is something. It also opens up the door to other benefits, notably reducing the council tax to 20% of the usual charge, once we have filled in the relevant six-page document from the council, and after 13 weeks of unemployment, the interest, not the capital, on the mortgage will be paid. However, by the time that comes around we will have lost the house as we are already defaulting on the mortgage. One month's default puts a black mark on the credit rating of everyone in the house for six years, even if they are not named on the mortgage (I had a friend who was affected by his father's bad credit rating years after he had left home); by the second month's default they move to repossession, on the third month's there is no way back. So, I thought, great, despite the complexity of the business situation, I could at least get some money. Then what happens? My previous company, the one that discriminated against me and treated me in such an appalling way, decided that it had not hammered me enought and wrote the Department of Work and Pensions to say that I had left my job in an inappropriate way. I had made great efforts to secure accurate letters outlining what had happened so that I would be acceptable to the government and then I find the vindictive staff have decided to try to reverse this and so get me barred from benefits for six months. Once the Jobseeker's Allowance is taken back the other benefits fall down like a house of cards even down to the boy who lives in my house being disallowed from getting school meals.

Of course, this is not the picture which is painted in the media. You only have to walk into a supermarket to see the right-wing newspapers, notably 'The Daily Mail' screaming about 'dole cheats'; people having multiple children to earn benefits or being foreigners and qualifying immediately for payments and people working and getting paid benefits paid unchallenged. I have seen how hard it is from both the civil servants' side and the claimants' side. I have seen the anti-fraud teams setting out from job centres to catch the genuine criminals who tend to be men running cleaning, building or agricultural businesses who organise for their workers to claim so they can reduce their pay. I know how whenever I go to a job interview or go into a benefit office or even to the bank, I have to produce a current British passport as if identity cards have been introduced by the back door. Even if you manage to fool the job centre, what do you get? I was receiving £70 per week and a couple could get £111 as if the second adult is expected to eat a fraction of what the first one does. You could get more from stealing a mobile phone from someone let alone their bicycle.

The constant stories about people getting so much money out of the state makes it impossible for anyone receiving the standard benefit payments let alone people like me, who because of complex issues, regulations and the malice of employers, cannot even get that. Family and friends believe it is so easy to get this money that I should be able to pay the mortgage and other bills, when in fact I am battling to get even the money to pay for food and it now seems that even that has been choked off. The sensational headlines pander to the prejudices of readers and sell more newspapers, but they make it even harder to claim benefits , which is part of the reason billions of pounds remain unclaimed. I think this is partly a drive to benefit employers by encouraging people to take any low paid job going, even those below minimum wage. The woman in my house is trained in catering and a woman who range a catering service offered her a job, saying she could set her own pay level. The woman from my house did, asking for £10 per hour and then reducing it to £7.50 per hour for a ten hour day. The caterer laid her off after that day, expressing anger that the woman from my house did not ask for pay below the minimum wage, even though to pay it was illegal.

There are people who manipulate the system, but the extent and the severity of it is far, far less than the myths that are peddled by the newspapers. By lying in this way, they hurt ordinary people, trying to get the low levels of benefit they are entitled to and allow family, friends and even random strangers to harangue those of us who are trying to hard to get what we are entitled to, let alone need. When you have no job accusations of laziness or lacking knowledge are hard enough to deal with, without this extra layer of stress being rained down on you by those who should be most supportive.


Jonathan said...

You have my full sympathy. My six months' dole ran out last month, and the DWP point at my pension and say "assets!!! bugger off!" Ignoring the fact that my pension is currently an *expense* not an income. So, I'm left with an income of £14 a week council tax benefit and expenses of £165 a week. Bankruptcy here we come. Though, after selling my p[ension and paying off the mortgage I'll be left five grand out of pocket. And then the DWP will say that I'll have "disposed of assests in order to qualify for benefits" and thereby disqualify me from any benefits. Leaving me with an income of £14 a week, expenses of £130 a week, and no pension.
I can't get any housing benefits because my house is split into two and the woman who lives in the other half also pays the mortgage.
Cameron keeps saying he wants to make work pay. Well, work *does* pay, and I'm now one of his ideal work-or-starve workers. I've applied for 950 jobs in the last 26 months. Where the hell is the work?

Rooksmoor said...

Yes, the one thing that the Thatcherites did so successfully and have managed to maintain and even extend today is the story that 'dole scroungers' are rife in this country. Yes, some people do fiddle the system, but they are in a tiny minority compared to the people who lose their houses and/or their electricity and gas because of the benefits system set up to dissuade even the most deserving from claiming. The increase of food banks is a clear sign of the problem, 120,000 people are now fed by them and the number is expected to double in three years; a third of people given free food by the Trusell Trust are children, 40,000 of them. These people are facing starvation but there are hundreds of thousands of others who are suffering because there is no work or benefits for them.

Jonathan said...

What doubly annoys me is that I've spent the last 20 years doing what the government and society has told me to do - save for my old age. As soon as I'm unemployed they tell me - bugger off.
If I'd spent the last 20 years pissing all my money away and piling up uncontrolable amounts of debt, the job centre would welcome me with open arms and shower me with money.

Rooksmoor said...

They would only welcome you with open arms and shower you with money if you had been a banker or run a utility company.

This is the thing, most people defrauding the benefit system are only able to secure small sums of money; £70 per week is never going to make you rich.

It is also like the stories about women making themselves pregnant to get cheap housing. The waiting list in my town is 7 years even if you are a woman with a child. Most end up in really dingy B&Bs with all adults and children in a single room, sharing washing facilities with other families. You only have to go to takeaways in East London to see the truth of it. Having no cooking facilities they are force to live on chips. This is the fate for thousands and thousands of people in the UK today. Those are the lucky ones, as they are not compelled to take food handouts from the Trusell Trust. Somehow without the media even really noticing we have slipped back from 2012 to 1872, with all the problems that were had then.

The point about ignoring all that working people have put into the system is is why there are so many strikes about the cuts to pensions that people have been paying into for years. The Welfare State was based on the principle of 'insurance', i.e. that you paid in when you were young, healthy and employed and then got benefits when old, sick or unemployed. That now seems to be ignored and you pay in and then get nothing in return apart from intrusion and attempts to make you feel guilty for asking for some crumbs.

The rich have won and yet they are still angry that we are not celebrating their victory with what they deem to be sufficient vigour.